John Walsh: Tales of the City

The cloak-and-dagger manoeuvrings behind the theft of Toga, the baby penguin
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The Independent Online

I think it was the intervention of the chap from Black Sabbath that made me pay proper attention to this business of seabird rustling.

At the start, it seemed just a prank. A week ago, a small baby penguin called Toga disappeared from the Amazon World Zoo on the Isle of Wight. Being modest in stature, he could, for all we know, have been hiding behind a convenient rock; but they monitor these things closely at Amazon World and they concluded he'd been nicked. Some wily opportunist, in the grip of powerful emotions after seeing the bit in March of the Penguins when an impossibly cute penguinlet gazes up at his looming papa with helpless love, had seized Toga, jammed him inside his coat and manoeuvred the feebly protesting, clammy burden past the security men. It was sad, but nothing special - just your standard, flightless-bird theft. I expect it happens all the time.

Within a couple of days, cash sums were mentioned. A reward of £1,000 was offered for the return of the three-month-old monochrome midget. Immediately I wondered what was going on. Was the offer of a reward something to do with ... a ransom demand? Had the zoo received a note, in glued-on letters from newspaper headlines, with the words: "LEaVe £5o0 in UsEd noTEs bESidE tHe MonKeY HouSe or tHe PenQWin GEts iT NO tRiCks"?

More pledges of money followed. An anonymous donor offered £10,000 for Toga's safe return. Ten grand for a penguin?

You could hear the nation's collective sentimental heart thumping, as we imagined the poor penguin incarcerated in a dungeon, trussed (can you truss flippers?) and gagged, being fed on three-day-old fish delivered by a surly gaoler. We imagined the tragic amphibian listening through the door as its kidnappers chain-smoked, laughed heartlessly, played poker, drank, and discussed what to do with the money.

Then the zoo manager, Kath Bright, voiced our worst fears: Toga, she said, might be in the hands of "an unscrupulous collector". Ms Bright didn't muck about: "If Toga was stolen to order by a professional," she said. "then of course there is a chance that we will never hear of him again."

What a picture conjured up - the unscrupulous villain, doubtless Oriental, a smirking, cruel-eyed, criminal mastermind living in a custom-built Maldives paradise crammed with unlawfully Twoc'd snow tigers, ocelots, pumas and cockatiels, greeting his icily efficient hitman ("You have served me well, Igor") as he returns from another raid on the British zoo system, and as he disgorges, from his innocent-seeming briefcase, a small penguin ...

International bird-rustling! It all fell into place. In Rio and Cape Town, they kidnap the children of rich Europeans. In western Europe, we're far too sophisticated to be exercised by the fate of child kidnapees. But show us a foot-high, helpless-looking, bird in trouble, and we're all in floods and shrieks.

Then Terence Butler joined the race to find Toga. Those of us awake in the early 70s will know "Geezer" Butler as the bassist in Black Sabbath, the band that gave the world Ozzy Osbourne. He may now look like a bank manager for all I know, but I remember Geezer as a large hairy chap in a ferociously black droopy moustache, a trench boat and an iron crucifix, and with little time for the niceties of philosophy or ethics. So far he has merely pledged £5,000. But his arrival on the scene pitches this curious saga on to a wholly new level of idiocy. I can practically hear a transcontinental horde of middle-aged Sabbath fans spurred into action by a word from Geezer, and setting off to locate the baby penguin. If I were the deranged criminal mastermind-collector, I'd be quaking in my boots by now.

Blistered pride

What an accident-prone bunch we've become. According to new Hospital Episode Statistics for 2004-2005 (compiled by the Health and Social Care Information Centre) the number of people admitted to A&E departments has gone up by 20 per cent in the last five years. What kind of accidents? The most ludicrous kind. Encounters with "non-power hand tools" - ie banging your thumb with a hammer, planing slices off your arm, and removing the tip of your index finger while screwing the lock back on the bathroom door. We're brilliant at accidents from "contact with power tools" and an absolute whizz at contact with irritable life forms - insect bites and hornet stings have doubled in the last year. Accidents resulting from the ill-advised use of high-pressure water jets are popular, as are falling over on the ice, in trendy ice rinks.

I'd be tempted to laugh at the people (900,000 of them) so afflicted with bad luck, had I not recently joined their ranks. Who'd have thought Christmas could be so dangerous? I don't mean for fat men falling down chimneys, or drunken smokers setting fire to their nightshirts while nodding off in bed (at least I assume that's what they mean by "ignition of nightwear"). I'm talking about the Christmas-pudding moment.

It is the climax of the meal. The pudding is in the kitchen. The lady of the house is warming brandy beside it. You look for a suitable serving plate, but they're all in the dishwasher. Instead you choose a flat tin tray, on which you place the pudding. Outside the door of the dining-room, your partner pours brandy over pudding, and applies a match - and you try to carry a tray of flaming blue alcohol for 10 yards as the incendiary liquid slops all over your hands to kindly cries of "Don't drop the pudding!". I'm not sure if it's third-degree burns or blistered pride, but my hands still hurt like hell. She's a tough mistress, the season of goodwill.